When I was in high school, I dated a girl who shared with me her personal experience with sexual abuse at the hands of a minister. I lost contact with her after high school, but I assume that she has struggled with the repercussions of this abuse all of her life. While I have lost contact with her, I have not forgotten the impact of this sexual abuse on her life. Ever since that time I have been especially aware of the ramifications of this outrage at the hands of ministers on the lives of vulnerable parishioners. Sexual abuse by ministers and other church leaders is perhaps the church’s greatest crime.

So how bad is the problem? One writer captures the scope of the problem in this quote: “Our research indicates that on average, over the past ten years, approximately 3,500 churches per year have responded to allegations of sexual misconduct in church programs involving children or youth.” That statistic breaks down to ten churches a day! I’m not sure of the accuracy of the statistics, but it is clear that this problem is rampant in churches today. Recent newspaper headlines have revealed the extent to which this problem permeates the Catholic church. This is not, however, a “Catholic” problem. The problem runs like an evil thread through all churches.

Why should we in the church be concerned about this issue? First of all, we should be concerned about the well-being of those who are affected by inappropriate sexual advances, because the victims are usually children, youth, or women. Their lives are permanently marred by these sexual misdeeds and their welfare should sound a warning to all churches and all pastors to deal with the issue. In addition, we should be concerned because of what these allegations do to the reputation of the church. Jesus has called Christians to be different from those who do not know Jesus Christ, different in the things we do not do and different in the things we do. When ministers demonstrate the same kind of sexual misbehavior that characterizes the society around them, such actions undermine the reputation of the church. In addition, we should be concerned because of the legal liability of the church and how such allegations will affect our ministry to our community.

Why is this misbehavior so common in the church? Individuals see the church as a safe environment where they can let down their guard because they do not expect anyone in the church to harm them. Consequently, they often neglect setting clear boundaries in behavior because of the trust they give to those who minister in the church. The intimate settings into which we are sometimes placed in the church also create an environment in which we might be tempted to cross these boundaries. The problem is heightened by the fact that many who turn to the church are vulnerable to begin with because of the treatment they have received from others in society. This vulnerability makes them prime targets for predators who function under the guise of ordination.

So what can we do about it? The proper response begins with a commitment of the minister to absolutely avoid any inappropriate actions or conversations. The pastor needs to lead the way and each person on the ministry team needs to be accountable to each other in this area. And then, we need to take the appropriate steps to make sure we follow through on our commitment. Here are a few guidelines to keep in mind.

  • This means we will take precautions about the context in which we meet with members.

  • This means we will be careful in our counseling situations.

  • This means we will maintain the appropriate boundaries in all of our personal relationships with church members.

  • This means we will avoid situations where we are vulnerable to accusations that we cannot disprove.

  • This means we will be cautious about whom we select to work with our children or youth.

  • This means we put into place the proper policies that will protect our children and youth.

From the standpoint of the minister, we need to acknowledge that it takes a lifetime to build a reputation. We can lose it in an instant! In this area, more so than in any other area of ministry, it is better to be safe than sorry. From the standpoint of our church members, we need to acknowledge that we can do irreparable damage to them. What is at stake is more than just the church’s reputation. What is at stake is the health and well-being of those who turn to the church for spiritual help.